Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ghostwriters Don't Write Stories About Ghosts

"What do you do?" the farmer asked me.

"I'm a ghostwriter."


"It pretty much is."

"We're going to do a haunted house here in the fall. I should hire you to write a script for it."

It should have occurred to me then what he thought I actually did for a living, but it didn't. I just nodded with a bit of confusion-- because I've never been to a haunted house that actually had a script-- but it took until much later for me to realize that he thought ghostwriters write stories about ghosts.

I thought that was just a funny one-time occurrence until two other people recently asked me questions about ghosts and haunted houses. So I thought it was time to put this out there:

Ghostwriters don't write stories about ghosts. We write books (and articles, blog posts, whatever) in other people's voices. We're called ghostwriters because we're meant to be invisible-- the books are not "ours," they're our clients'. It's our job to interview our clients and do whatever research is needed to get the story told well in their point of view.

It's a bit of a misnomer these days, though, because ghostwriters do usually get some kind of name credit. Not always, but usually. If you see a book that says "By Joe Smith with Jane Brown," then Jane Brown was the ghostwriter. Joe Smith is usually in large type and Jane Brown is in smaller type. If the ghostwriter isn't credited on the cover, he or she is often credited in the acknowledgments, though not necessarily in a clear way (it may not say "Thanks to my ghostwriter, Jane Brown," but instead may say something like, "Thanks to Jane Brown for the editing help," or "Thanks to Jane Brown for her thoughtful assistance").

So, yeah, I don't write about hauntings. But my job? It really is still SO COOL.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Should You Donate to the "Help Me Save 300" Fund?

By now, you've probably heard about the teenagers who trashed Brian Holloway's former home, but just in case:

Former NFL player Brian Holloway lives in Florida now, but still has temporary ownership of his former residence, 742 NY #43 in Stephentown, NY. His son found out via Twitter that a bunch of kids had broken into the house and were throwing a huge-- and destructive-- party. The kids were taking photos and bragging about it on Twitter in real time. Police showed up and broke it up, and Brian understandably freaked out.

Then he did something that drew a ton of attention: Instead of just pursuing criminal and civil charges, he called out the kids and their parents online, reposting their photos and naming names. And he invited them to redeem themselves by showing up to help him clean up the damage. While plenty of locals have shown up to help, only one teen from the party and one parent showed up the first day, and four showed up on a second clean-up day.

Brian has been all over the media talking about this, and the need to save these kids' lives from drugs, alcohol, and other bad influences. I'm so with him up to here. It sounds like a noble response to something so horrible, and people have talked about what a classy reaction this has been.

Unfortunately, there are some holes in this story that need patching.

Brian has been asking for donations since this broke. It was unclear to me how the donations would be used, so I asked... four times (privately and publicly) and never got a response. First, he asked the teens to donate to a breast cancer charity, which is linked on his website. But right next to it is a general "Donate" button that goes to his own account, not a charity. He also set up a separate "GoFundMe" donation page, which says, "We're looking for donations to help with damages to the home and more importantly to help with funding to start the Help Me Save 300 movement." On first glance, I thought it was reasonable to ask for help fixing his home until I realized a few things:

-This is a very rich man, and this is his second home. It's listed for 1.5 million dollars, while his primary home is in Florida. He is clearly far richer than most of the people who are donating to him, and charges upwards of $10,000 for his speaking fees-- never mind his multiple other businesses. If I were a millionaire, I'd feel morally wrong asking strangers on the Internet in a difficult economy to help me fix up my second home that's for sale.

-Homeowner's insurance has never been mentioned, but should cover this-- as long as the house is actually his and he's paid his insurance.

-Right away, businesses stepped up and donated their supplies and labor. Community volunteers also showed up in large numbers. When one volunteer showed up to help, he realized the "destruction" had been overstated. He said, "I visited the house last week and saw no party damage that still needed to be cleaned or fixed. When I asked to see examples of damage, Holloway showed me a dirty sink and scuffed floors. Yes, there was graffiti and stained carpets, but both (and the scuffed floors too) existed before the party. On the day I was there, Holloway actually had volunteers loading boxes from a storage area into a car (photo above)." (See Chris Churchill's essay here.)

-Brian regularly speaks about wealth management, sales and marketing, and has a club just for wealthy Wall Street "power players" where they have to pay a minimum of $25,000 to join. See the press release here.

-Despite that he is all over the place talking about wealth and how to keep it, the house in question is in foreclosure and up for auction in October. He has not paid the mortgage or property taxes. It seems to follow a pattern-- many years ago, he owed $11,000 in child support during a divorce that wound up with a restraining order and charges against him for violating that restraining order. It seems to me that although he is capable of paying his debts, he chooses not to. It also seems that he has a problem taking personal responsibility, as evidenced by this very strange interview.

-Many of the kids have apologized and explained that they didn't know the house was broken into. They believed that the house was owned by the parents of the kid who threw the party.

-There has been no independent corroboration of any intent to sue him by any of the parents, though they're being demonized for it.

So let me explain one thing first: I absolutely know that what those kids did was wrong. Very wrong. Even if you DO believe the house belongs to the host's parents, you don't add graffiti to it, get drunk, get into fights, steal things, etc. And if you're dumb enough to brag about it on Twitter, you can't complain when it gets out that you participated in this. And you darn well should show up to help clean up your mess when you realize that you did something wrong. Your parents should be there, too, falling all over themselves to apologize and take responsibility. There should be groundings and tough conversations between those parents and teens.

But I also smell a rat here. It's partly about the money, and the massive media campaign that seems suspiciously self-serving to me, and the fact that I'm just not buying this man's character. There is an utter lack of transparency here about what all the donations will be used for. What is the "movement" we're paying for? The picnics and website? His speaking fees and travel fees to go on the news? It all feels opportunistic to me, and I'm surprised that the reporters who've interviewed him have not asked any of the tough questions-- like, what's the breakdown of expenses? What's already been donated and covered by insurance? Why are neighbors saying the house was already in disrepair and the damage is being exaggerated?

Brian says he's trying to raise $20,000 (I'd be surprised if he hasn't surpassed that already, considering the massive media campaign), and all I can think about is my local domestic violence center, which puts people on months-long waiting lists when they come in asking to join one of the counseling groups. Or the food pantries around here that run out of food before they run out of people needing it. Or the couple whose house is in foreclosure because their daughter has cancer and they can't keep up with the bills. There are so many people and charities that really need that $20,000. It makes me sad that they won't get it because this man is convincing us that we should pay for his scuffed floor. Or worse, that people are donating because they don't understand that he's not doing something charitable with the money. Even all these picnics are serving to keep his face in the media and raise his profile, which will keep donations rolling in and help him become more in-demand as a high-paid speaker and consultant. He's also calling for IT techs to fly out to meet him and develop an app for parents to monitor their kids' Twitter activity (which could also be called "Don't let your kids use Twitter unless you know their password and check in regularly").

It gives me no joy to post this, because I was among the many who was originally inspired by this man and his seemingly big-hearted gesture to help teens in trouble. I like believing that there are good people in this world who would be so forgiving and caring as to want to help people who've done them wrong. I wish I didn't have to see it any other way now.

So now I'm calling you out in the same way you called those kids out, Brian: This is your chance for redemption. Do the right thing with the money you've collected. Use it in the spirit in which it was given, and stop collecting more until you've outlined where it's going.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The SimpliSafe Story

My recent move has been... well, eventful. It's been one of those experiences where you shout-sing Kelly Clarkson's "What doesn't kill you makes you STRONGER" as you're spackling and power-drilling and unclogging and fixing. One of the first things I wanted to take care of when I got here was an alarm system. I did my research and decided that SimpliSafe would be my best option: You own the system, no contracts, and it's simple to install yourself wirelessly. The company agreed to let me review the system for this blog. (Hey, thanks, guys.)

As soon as it arrived, I began setting up the sensors, then the keypad and alarm. Just an hour after I got it all set up, one of the sensors started to chirp.


I walked over to it and couldn't figure out what was wrong. So I did what reasonable people do in these situations: I gave it a little smack. It stopped chirping. Solved!

I went back to work, but a minute later, the chirping started again. I adjusted the sensor, but couldn't see anything wrong with it. I smacked it again, and again it stopped.

You can see where this is going. I felt like I was living under a little black raincloud.

I didn't quite understand why the sensor would chirp at all-- there wasn't any speaker in it, as far as I knew. And yet every time I walked away, it started this loud chirp again, and every time I tapped it, it stopped. I was on hold with SimpliSafe's customer service line when I opened the door to look again, and guess what?

There was a cricket two inches away from the sensor, on top of the door frame.

Every time I smacked the sensor, it scared the cricket enough to shut it up, and then as soon as I walked away, it started in again.

Now, that would be a cheery end to my story if it were the end, but unfortunately, it is not. Two of the sensors (not that one) were not responding. It turned out that the metal doors they were on interfere with the magnets in the sensors, and I was able to reposition one of the sensors to fix the problem, but the other refused to be fixed. That led to my first real call to SimpliSafe's customer line. They told me how to solve the problem: put extra double-sided tape under the sensor so the metal door doesn't confuse the system. Cool.

But then the keypad announced that there was no link to the central monitoring dispatch. Which meant that the wireless connection... wasn't connecting. I called customer support again and they talked me through where to place the base-- they had a map of my area's wireless towers and knew which direction in my house would have the strongest signal. I placed it on a windowsill in the right direction and it worked immediately. Cool.

I had been worried about the wireless signal because as of today, their systems are all still through T-Mobile, which has iffy reception in my area. They have, however, signed a deal with Verizon so that areas like mine that have better Verizon reception will have connections through Verizon instead. (If you have a system already and it's not connecting well, they can send you a new Verizon base in about 5 weeks, according to the rep I spoke with. That was as of the beginning of September, so it sounds like they'll be ready in early October.) The website wasn't clear about this-- I thought the Verizon units were already shipping.

Then I installed the smoke alarm, and two days later, it began beeping to alert me to a low battery. Back to customer service, who said they'd send me a new battery. They did right away... but it was the wrong battery. So they're sending me a new one.


Okay, so by this point I was a bit frustrated. Things hadn't gone as smoothly as I'd hoped, but the true test didn't happen until yesterday.

They give you the first few days to "practice" with the system without having it connected to dispatch. Practice... ha! What could be so hard about setting an alarm and then turning it off? I was smart. I didn't need to practice. I was, like, gifted with alarms. Until day 4.

I was half-asleep at the computer at 2 a.m., gave up on work, set the alarm, and went up to bed. That's when I realized I'd left my sheets in the dryer and hadn't made the bed yet. I had to go out to the garage to get my laundry. Which I did. Forgetting that there was a sensor on the door leading to my garage and that the alarm was activated. Thirty seconds later...



I about started convulsing on the floor. I knew I had to get to the keypad and shut off the alarm, but the siren was right near there and it was like ear torture getting any closer to the speaker. But with the knowledge that my new neighbors were not going to be fond of me if I let this go on, I decided the decent thing to do would be to shut off this blaring alarm at 2 a.m. or at least have the courtesy to set myself on fire and run out on the lawn so it would look like there had been some purpose in this commotion. I chose the former, and the phone rang IMMEDIATELY.

It was the alarm company asking for my "safe word." I was still shaking when I picked up the phone and told her my safe word. Then I said, "I scared the poop out of myself!"

She said, "That's okay."

No, it wasn't okay. It was fantastic, because you know what? Had I been an actual intruder, NO WAY would I have stuck around for that.

So, yes, it took me a bit of messing around to get the system set up, but once I got it, it functioned just right. (And then I was so adrenalined up that I couldn't fall asleep, so I started assembling furniture at 3 a.m. By the time my pulse returned to normal, I had a new sewing cabinet set up.)

Then I got better news: I get a discount on my insurance for having monthly monitoring (burglar and fire). So if I choose to have monthly monitoring-- and I do, but you don't have to... you can just use the system as a deterrent and not have it connected to a central station-- I pay just $15 a month and there's no contract. And I get $60 a year off my insurance, which is like getting 4 months of monitoring free. So my real cost for a year of monitoring is $120. And with the system itself, you can choose from a variety of configurations; you decide how many entry sensors and motion detectors, whether you want things like a panic button, freeze sensor, extra siren, carbon monoxide detector, etc. So you can even start small and then add components later once you see if the system works for you. Check with your insurance company, though-- mine would give a discount only if I had a burglar AND fire alarm with central monitoring. The 10% discount that some insurances give will just about cover all of your monitoring costs.

It has some very cool features, like a "duress code"-- a code you can program that's not your real code, to alert dispatch that you're being forced to turn off your alarm against your will. And you can set temporary codes for people who might need access to your house (guests, workers), then erase those codes anytime. You can turn the system on and off via the keypad or the buttons on the keychain-- which also has a panic button that sounds the alarm if you're in or close to your house.

The other thing that's cool is that it's portable. If you move, you take it with you. 

Keeping in mind that it's a wireless system, you have to be in an area with good T-Mobile or Verizon coverage. But as long as you are, then I recommend this as a great option to save money and stay away from locking yourself into a contract where someone else owns the equipment.

You can learn more and buy a system at or on Amazon.